September 23, 2019

Going to the well

Isaac had just come back, having gone to Beer-lahai-roi, for he was settled in the south. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening, and looking up, he saw camels approaching. 

— Genesis 24:62-63

Isaac is in a lot of pain. He is in deep mourning for his mother. He is traumatized by his father. His faith is in crisis. Isolated in his suffering, he wanders out at twilight, a blurry silhouette, in search of solace. 

Long ago, before Isaac was born, his parents had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar who was carrying Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Isaac’s mother afflicted the pregnant woman, and she fled into the wilderness, wishing to die rather than face her mistress’ abuse. 

She collapsed. She called out to God. And God spoke to her. In the ecstasy of revelation, Hagar gave God a new name, El-roi, “God Who Sees Me.” 

It is a unique endearment, personal and intimate. Rabbi Aybu said the name means “you identify with the embarrassment of those who have been insulted and humiliated” (Genesis Rabba 45). She named the place Beer-lahai-roi, “The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me” (Genesis 16:13-14).

Of all places, Isaac goes to The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me, the place where God answered Hagar. What was Isaac seeking there? Commentators suggest he had gone to the well to fetch Hagar. Sarah had died and he was bringing Hagar back to his father, Abraham, so they could be wed. But that assumes Isaac is on good terms with his father and psychologically
prepared to help him replace his mother. I’m doubtful.

Isaac was the son of a charismatic leader and conqueror. He was upper-middle class, if not wealthy elite. His family had amassed a fortune and many followers and cattle. Isaac could talk to the teachers at his acclaimed school, the mentors he surely had acquired, his therapist, nutritionist, tea-leaf reader, career counselor, yogi, guru. Why does Isaac carry his burden, his pain, his grief to the well of Hagar — his parents’ maid, a domestic worker, an immigrant? 

Perhaps he identifies with Hagar, both suspended between the matriarch’s anguished longing for a child and the patriarch’s tragic servility to God. Perhaps Isaac, too, needed a new name for God, because The Name that blessed and spoke to Abraham sent Hagar into the wilderness nearly to die and Isaac up the mountain nearly to die. 

Perhaps, in the way that all sadness seeks to understand its own origin, Isaac sought one who also shared his home and who might have secrets about this family and this faith. Perhaps he was looking for a mother figure. Perhaps he was yearning for his brother. 

Isaac goes to the place seeking the kind of healing that only can come from one who sees and you. He seeks to be seen. And he is. “Looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac” (Genesis 24:63-64). 

Somehow, the waters of Hagar’s well succeed in eroding the calcified walls around Isaac’s heart, opening him to the great spirit of life. His emptiness is quenched. The clog is unstopped, and the mysterious river of life that courses through every artery and flower stem now rushes freely through. His solitude dissolves into oneness. 

Would that we could find the place, The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me, where the embarrassed are elevated, the insulted are invited, the humiliated are humanized. At The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me, the abused are answered, the battered receive blessings, the oppressed are honored, the silent are summoned, the invisible come into view and light shines on the shadow dwellers. At The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me, the barren are beheld for their fruitfulness, the deprived for their dignity, the orphans for their
offering, the wounded for their infinite worth. 

Would that we could go there in dusk, when details are hard to decipher, and we could meditate, joining our pain to the pain of others, in empathy and appreciation. 

Would that we could go there and be seen, heard, valued and loved. 

Would that we could go there and be found, and in being found, find each other.

ZOE KLEIN is senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah.